Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Boston”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #103: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

I saw the movie “Mystic River” quite a few years ago, and remember it being dark, painfully tragic and brilliantly acted. Now, having read quite a few of Lehane’s novels and enjoyed every one of them, I picked up Mystic River the book at my library, and got blown away all over again. Lehane takes a murder mystery and wraps it in a study of human psychology that is truly Shakespearean in scope.

It starts with an horrific childhood trauma: three 11-year-old boys are squabbling in the rough streets of Boston, when a cop car pulls up and orders the kids into the car to “teach them a lesson” about fighting in the streets. Only they are not cops, and while Jimmy and Sean recognize something isn’t quite right and refuse to get in the car, the fearful Davey does. He escapes from his abductors four days later, but none of the three escapes unscathed from the incident. The guilt-ridden Sean grows up into a cop with a broken marriage, Jimmy hones his street smarts into becoming a criminal legend, and the severely-damaged Dave carries around “the Boy Who Escaped From Wolves” in his head while trying to be a good family man.

They’ve gone their separate ways, but Sean, Jimmy and Dave cross paths tragically when Jimmy’s lovely 19-year-old daughter is beaten to death on the eve of her secret elopement. Sean must investigate a murder which brings him face-to-face with his childhood fears, Jimmy must decide whether to return to the coldblooded past he had shunned for his family’s sake, and Dave encounters his “Wolf.” But Lehane doesn’t stop there. He gives us Jimmy’s wife Annabeth, a stoic and strong-willed woman who is sister to a vicious clan of thugs and Jimmy’s “foundation,” and Dave’s wife Celeste, a cousin to Annabeth whose fear of the encroaching world and its attendant horrors undoes her.

As much a novel about the flaws that challenge us and make us human as it is about the city of Boston in which Lehane grew up and sets all his novels, Mystic River is a tour de force. As one reviewer put it so succinctly, “The lines between guilt and innocence, loyalty and treachery, justice and brutality are perpetually being smudged and redrawn,” forcing one to look inward and test oneself against the moral ambiguities in today’s world. Without giving anything away, I will say that the very end of the novel was deeply disturbing—as it was meant to be—and clinched Lehane’s brilliance for me.

Valyruh’s #CBR Review #73: The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Pearl’s The Dante Club is a rousing success, both as an historical novel and as a murder mystery. But what elevates this novel above the rest, I felt, was Pearl’s decision to use The Divine Comedy of 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri not merely as a literary device to drive his murder plot, but as the underpinning for a broader investigation of a number of critical issues of the time. This novel takes place in Boston in 1865, where the aftershocks of the civil war are still very much in evidence.  Racism is still rampant, crime and violence is widespread and growing, religious and ethnic intolerance is pervasive, and the hidebound Harvard Corporation—a favorite target of Harvard graduate Pearl—has a stranglehold on the cultural, religious, and academic life of the city. Just the kind of issues Dante himself tackled in his famous poem.

Several of the top literary minds of the city have come together to help one of America’s most beloved poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, complete the first-ever American translation into English of Dante’s Commedia, a poetic trilogy detailing Dante’s metaphorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and ultimately Paradise. What makes Dante’s work unique is that it was the first serious literary work to be written in the Italian vernacular common to the people of that country—and thus accessible to them–as opposed to the Latin used among Italy’s elites. In racing to finish their translation, Boston’s Dante Club (as Longfellow and friends dub themselves) must fend off repeated sabotage efforts on the part of the Harvard Corporation, which sees the release of Dante’s masterpiece to the general American public as diluting the academic waters and threatening especially the so-called classical education which Harvard sees as its special preserve, and would keep for America’s elites alone.

It turns out that someone is murdering Boston’s top citizens in precisely the horrific ways described by Dante as he visits the tortured souls in Hell, and the Dante Club feels obliged to use its familiarity with the poem to anticipate and trap the killer, whom they call “Lucifer.” They eventually team up with Boston’s first non-white policeman, a former soldier of mixed race who has a fine investigator’s instinct but is hobbled at every turn by the prejudice surrounding him. It becomes a race to find Lucifer’s Dante source before the Club members themselves are targeted for the punishments of the “Inferno.”

Adding extra depth to the plot, I thought, were the pages Pearl devoted to harrowing first-hand accounts of civil war battle and the post-traumatic stress that afflicted so many of the survivors of that war upon their return to civilian life. My only complaint is that Pearl’s inexperience as a novelist at the time he wrote The Dante Club made for a certain anti-climactic weakness in the final pages of the novel following the denouement, but that didn’t significantly detract from the overall success of the novel.

I must confess that I was shocked at the number of readers of this book who complained of too much detail, too many literary references, and just plain boredom with Pearl’s writing. This is not your average “page-turner,” to be sure, nor is it intended as a light read. Indeed, to the author’s credit, he has taken his time and done meticulous research to be able to craft his novel for authenticity of detail on every front—from the sights and smells of 19th century Boston, to the literary circles of Longfellow and company, to the speaking style of his many different characters, down to the creative if gruesome specifics of the murders themselves. That authenticity of detail only enhanced the story, while providing much food for thought.

Finally, I would just say that you don’t have to be a lover of Dante to enjoy this book, but you will be by the time you finish it.

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 16 Sacred by Dennis Lehane

Sacred, the third book in Dennis Lehane’s superb mystery series, picks up 6 months after Darkness, Take My Hand. Shell shocked Boston private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are trying to rebuild their lives after the devastating events of their previous case and have stopped taking new work. However, billionaire Trevor Stone needs their help so badly that he kidnaps the detectives to persuade them to locate his missing daughter, Desiree. Despite Trevor’s unorthodox methods Angie and Patrick are intrigued by the case – and the $50,000 retainer doesn’t hurt, either. As they dig deeper in to Desiree’s disappearance they uncover a shady grief counseling company, connections to a heroin smuggler, and and a never ending stream of lies.

After the brutal Darkness, Take my Hand; this novel is almost whimsical in comparison. There is still dark aspects and plenty of violence  but there is a lot more humor and the stakes are not quite as high. Even facing death Patrick and Angie are more wisecracking and cavalier, as if the previous case has broken them of any optimism for the future they once had. We learn more about how Patrick became a detective and Angie continues to deal with her grief over the loss of a loved one at the hands of a serial killer. Ultimately, the case they are working on is thematically the B plot. Even the title has nothing to do with the case, and is only referred to and spelled out in the final pages. The horrifying events in Darkness, Take My Hand has forced the detectives to rely on each other completely and this makes them a formidable opponent for anything that is thrown at them.

Lehane finds the balance between the suspense and the humor in Sacred, making for a very fast paced and enjoyable story. The book starts off fast and never lets up until the wicked conclusion. Along the way the bullets are flying, the bodies are piling up, and Angie and Patrick are back to doing what they do best: staying a half step ahead of their adversaries and not stopping until the case is closed.

Sacred is not nearly as thematically weighty as its predecessors but it is a lot more fun and bridges the gap between the two heavy entries in the series of Darkness, Take my Hand and Gone Baby Gone.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #43: The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen

This is my first introduction to the whodunits of author Tess Gerritsen, perhaps best known for having written the Rizzoli and Isles mysteries that have been turned into a television series of that name. I was pleasantly surprised by the challenging plot of this 2007 novel, which is split between present-day Boston and that same city in the early 1800s. Julia Hamill, recently divorced from her faithless husband, is moping around in the old house she has just bought when she discovers a human skeleton in the untended garden. Medical examiner Maura Isles makes a brief appearance in the novel to confirm that the skull shows clear evidence of murder. We don’t really discover who the skeleton belongs to until near the end of the novel, but Julia begins to delve into the history of the family which owned the house before her, and thus we are plunged into the 1830s where the action takes place.

Medical colleges in those days had to rely on so-called “resurrectionists,” otherwise known as body snatchers, for the anatomical studies necessary for training doctors, and the talented young farmer Norris Marshall is paying his way thru medical school by reluctantly assisting a murderous corpse-thief in stealing bodies from graveyards in dead of night. When several mutilated victims of a serial killer turn up in Marshall’s vicinity, he becomes chief suspect in what the newspapers are calling the West End Reaper case. Suspected as an accomplice is 17-year-old Irish maid Rose Connolly, whose sister has just died in childbirth at the hospital where Marshall works, and whose newborn daughter becomes the object of a terrifying hunt by sinister forces. A desperate Rose turns to a rather hapless Marshall for help and to protect her niece.

The plot becomes increasingly complex, perhaps unnecessarily so, but what kept my interest was the involvement in the plot of a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the famous American jurist of the same name, who was attending medical school along with Marshall. While the majority of the med students are wealthy snobs, Holmes befriends the impoverished and persecuted Marshall and together they seek to untangle the mystery, expose the killer, and free both Marshall and Rose from suspicion. Holmes is fascinating, as he was in real life, and is perhaps the most interesting character in this novel. In setting the stage for the story, Gerritsen does an excellent job in not only conveying the class tensions that were prevalent in 19th century Boston (as elsewhere), but gruesomely portrays the epidemic of childbirth deaths from puerperal fever of the time, an epidemic which the historic Holmes in fact played a heroic role in defeating.

As the novel gallops to a very messy–if unexpected–conclusion, the writing gets increasingly awkward and the plot increasingly contrived. Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to go on to several of Gerritsen’s more recent novels, which will be reviewed soon.

Petalfrog’s #CBR4 Review #26: Too Close to Home by John Perich

Yet another book set in Boston. I think that’s at least my fourth this year? This one actually does a fairly great job of utilizing the city. I’m not sure why it’s become so important to me that authors use their settings well, but when it comes to a city that I know (such as Boston), savvy use of the setting can really win me over.

Read the rest of the review at my blogs! Opens in new window

Also… Review #26 means I’m halfway through the Read! How exciting 🙂 Have two books in the vault for reviewing.

Petalfrog’s #CBR4 Review #22: Live to Tell by Lisa Gardner

Live to Tell is part of the D.D. Warren series. In this tale, Gardner uses three distinct characters’ narratives to interweave her story. First is D.D. Warren, who is a detective on the Boston PD. D.D (ugh worst character name), has been called in to the scene of a brutal “family annihilation” where the father apparently went on a rampage, killing his whole family and then turning the gun on himself. Merely days later D.D. and her team are called to another, very similar scene where everyone is dead and the father appears to have killed himself. The two families seemingly have nothing in common, but as D.D. detects further they discover one link between the families.

Danielle Burton is a nurse at an acute psychiatric ward for children. She is one troubled lady, being the sole survivor of her father’s brutal rampage on her family 25 years earlier. Not approaching the anniversary of her family members’ deaths, she finds herself having to cope with more than she might be able to handle. Victoria Oliver is a single mother with an extremely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed child. She has sacrificed much to keep him and herself safe, but she quickly finds that everything she has done has been in vain.

The great thing about Lisa Gardner’s novels is how rapid fire everything moves. We are very quickly thrown into the action, and stay there throughout. D.D.’s portions are told from the third person, while Danielle and Victoria’s are both first person. This is certainly an interesting choice, as D.D. is the “star” of a series of novels, yet we are meant to connect most deeply with Danielle and Victoria since this is their story. The action revolves around them, and D.D. is merely a way to bring their story to the reader. I was pretty excited to see how Gardner would connect Danielle and Victoria, and she did not disappoint although the end was a tad cheesy and “out there.”

It was very interesting reading this book right after finishing Gone Baby Gone. Both are set in Boston, with big chunks set in Dorchester. Lehane treats Boston as a character within his novels… the nature and spirit of the city is interwoven into every word he writes. On the flipside, Boston is merely a back drop in Gardner’s novel. Really, this story could be told in any city. There is nothing about the characters that is distinctively “Bostonian” (no one even drinks a Dunkin’ Donuts for crying out loud). It’s a very striking distinction, and overall tells me much about what the authors goals are. Gardner wants to entertain; Lehane wants to tell a STORY.

Petalfrog’s #CBR4 Review #21: Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane

Patrick Kenzie and Angie Genarro are private detectives in Dorchester, Massachusetts, one of the “toughest” neighborhoods of Boston. They are hired to find Amanda McCready, the four year old daughter of neglectful Helene who barely even registers that her child has gone missing (unless television cameras are around, of course). Amanda’s aunt Beatrice and uncle Leroy are desperate to find her. Kenzie and Genarro reluctantly agree to help the two Boston detectives on the case, Poole and Broussard. They quickly find themselves deeper in the case than they could possibly imagine. Used to gangster violence in their hometown of Dorchester, Angie and Patrick find themselves facing new levels of evil beyond what they previously thought possible.

I cannot even describe how much I love this book. It is incredibly difficult to read at times in terms of the content and the difficult ethical issues coming up. On the surface it is a story about a child kidnapping, but underneath it’s really about the depravity of man. The things that humans, both on the side of “good” and “evil,” are willing to do to achieve their, often selfish, needs. When I first read this book, there were points where I had to stop and physically take a breath because the emotions ran so high. On this second reading, my emotions were less triggered, but my mind could not get over the reality that people could be so cruel to others. I know this, everyone knows this. We see it in the news, we see it online, but somehow reading it in a fiction novel makes it feel so real and tangible.

This is NOT a pleasant book, yet this is an incredible book. It is exceptionally well-written. Again, the material is heavy, more so than the other Kenzie/Genarro books. Lehane does temper it with a dry, dark sense of humor in his characters which keeps the book from becoming morose and depressing.

The plot is not overly complicated, and offers just that balance of realism and twistiness to keep the reader engaged throughout. Lehane makes excellent use of Boston, especially Dorchester. I live in Dorchester, so I love reading the Kenzie/Genarro books as it is. He captures the working-class neighborhood excellently. Despite having the apparently highest murder rate in Boston (thanks movie!), the majority of Dorchester is a lovely place to live. There are parks and beaches and lots of working-class/immigrant families. People are not running around waving guns or beating people up… and I think Lehane does a good job of showing that most of the criminal tomfoolery goes on, where I suspect they actually do, in bars. I also love Patrick and Angie. I love their relationship with Bubba, who is undoubtedly a bad man. He is a criminal gangster through and through. I love the added layer of complication given to the PI pair, who while trying to do good for others are willing to have Bubba help them even though his techniques are certainly less than legal.

Dennis Lehane is easily one of the best modern writers. He is most well-known for Mystic River I believe which is another excellent book (although I despise the movie with every piece of my body). I highly recommend him to anyone looking to add a new author to their bookshelves. Gone Baby Gone is an excellent stand-alone book, even though it is part of the Kenzie/Genarro series. Five stars.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #31: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

Pearl hits another one out of the gate, in my opinion, despite occasional and surprising moments of poor writing (hopefully due to an oppressive editorial deadline and not a reflection of something more serious and more permanent). I thrilled to Pearl’s usual mix of well-researched history, wrapped around a humdinger of a mystery, wrapped around several excellently-chosen social issues as relevant in the 1860s (when his story takes place) as they are today. Pearl chooses Harvard versus MIT as the symbols of two sides of the great “technology debate” in the period immediately following the Civil War and pits a Bostonian alliance of industrialists and scientists seeking technological innovation to both cheapen production costs and improve living standards against (1) unions desperate to hold onto labor’s advantage in the marketplace (2) academics wedded to fusty and outmoded ideas (3) media opposing the spread of science outside Establishment control and (4) the church. The battle for the rights of the common man—and woman—is also front and center in Pearl’s story, as defended by MIT’s far-sighted founder William Barton Rogers.

The plot is a complex one, and heroes and villains abound. Someone is using advanced science to sow chaos and destruction from Boston’s harbor to its financial center to its industry. The casualties are mounting, and the police investigation has been placed into the hands of the famed naturalist Professor Louis Agassiz, a died-in-the-wool Harvardian and violent opponent of the fledgling Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Indeed, MIT and its first class of 15 seniors—including working-class “charity scholars”—are facing charges of fomenting the disasters with their allegedly “atheistic” and “Darwinian” defense of “unrestricted science.” It falls to The Technologists, a secret club formed of three MIT seniors and the college’s one female student, to sleuth out the science behind the disasters, anticipate and prevent the next disaster, and uncover the culprit whom they have dubbed “The Experimenter.” As is often the case in his novels, Pearl leads his heroes—and the reader—to uncover one potential villain after another, only to discover in the end that the real “Experimenter” is the least expected character in the book.

Along the way, Pearl—himself a graduate of Harvard–fascinates us with real science and real history. Real-life experiments in chemistry, botany, physics, architecture, and mechanical engineering are scattered throughout the novel, and are skillfully made integral to the plot itself. MIT’s Rogers and Harvard’s Agassiz are not only characters in The Technologists but were prominent figures of their time. Pioneering female scientist and graduate of MIT’s first class Ellen Swallow, along with her husband Robert Hallowell Richards, play prominent and delightfully heroic roles in Pearl’s story. Pearl dips repeatedly into Civil War history to paint a backdrop for some of the developments in his novel, and captures to a tee the social bigotry that festered in the big urban centers of the United States at the time.

While the centerpiece of Pearl’s story—the race against time to stop “The Experimenter” before all of Boston is demolished—is pure melodrama, The Technologists is a fascinating exploration of many of the social issues of the time and brought to this reader’s mind, at least, the ongoing debate today within the scientific community, the media, politicians, and the public over whether our world should invest in space exploration, nuclear fusion, stem cell research, and similar leading-edge technologies, or retreat out of fear and prejudice.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #19: Darkness Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane

As promised in my recent CBR4 review of Dennis Lehane’s first novel, I have just finished reading Darkness Take My Hand, the second book in the Kenzie/Gennaro private eye series, and find myself blown away, as much by Lehane’s compelling noir tale as by his brilliant depiction of unutterable human corruption.

The duo get hired to find out who is threatening a lady psychiatrist and her son, and their early investigation takes them into the heart of Boston’s Irish Mafia which Kenzie and Gennaro know intimately. Here, they cross paths with a cluster of murderous sociopaths, who nonetheless pale in comparison to the pair of demented serial killers who spring from Kenzie’s past, take over the novel about half-way through, and ratchet up the terror considerably. Any more details would truly be spoilers, so that’s all you’ll get on the main plot. But there’s so much more.

The Boston in which Kenzie and Gennaro operate is a black hole which admits no light, an urban underbelly saturated with psychosis, fear, and blood. Lots of it! But where Lehane’s genius lies is in bringing his characters—and Boston is definitely one of them!—into bold relief, so that we cannot dismiss them as figments of the author’s imagination, but instead we are forced to acknowledge that they are terrifying inhabitants of our own world.

True to form, Lehane’s novel is a murder mystery, a political thriller, and a romance all rolled into one. But more than that, Lehane gives us highly complex parallel plots which repeatedly intersect until they merge. He also plays with the time line of his story, so that we are tossed back and forth in time to fill out the details and explain the references to this incident or that person from Kenzie and Gennaro’s past. So while walking in the footsteps of his two heroes, we also experience their histories, their loves—and their demons. Villains and heroes from the previous novel change places, and the moral line between what is right and what is necessary becomes increasingly and deliberately blurred, bringing the story to an incredibly explosive conclusion but also leaving this reader, at least, in a slight state of shock and in desperate need of some sunlight and a big hug!

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #16: A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

This was the first in a succession of powerful thrillers to come from the pen of Dennis Lehane, and I can honestly say it holds its own with his most polished later works like Gone Baby Gone and Moonlight Mile. Published in 1994, this novel launched the careers of Lehane’s streetwise pair of private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, and delves into the world of dirty politics, child abuse, drug and weapons running, murder, racial tension, and gang warfare, themes that are recurrent in the only slightly fictionalized dark side of Boston where most of Lehane’s stories take place.

Patrick and Angie are contracted by Senators Sterling Mulkern and Brian Paulson, two of Boston’s top politicians, to recover some ‘documents’ allegedly stolen by a cleaning maid from Paulson’s office at the State Senate building. Simple, right? Except the documents turn out to be incriminating 6-year-old photographs showing Paulson raping a little boy in an act brokered by Marion Socia, a top drug dealer, gang leader, stone-cold killer, pimp … and would-be blackmailer. The cleaning maid, we soon learn, is Socia’s estranged wife and the boy is their son Raymond, now grown and the dead-eyed leader of a rival gang dedicated to the extermination of Socia and the takeover of his criminal kingdom.

Kenzie and Gennaro, hard-boiled themselves in the white working-class tenements of Dorchester, bring to Lehane’s story a compelling mixture of tough and tender, as she struggles with an abusive husband and he carries around the perpetual nightmare of his own childhood abuse by his father “The Hero.” Partly as a result of the personal crosses they bear and partly because of their own moral compass, our heroes commit to exposing the bad guys on both sides of their contract . This puts Kenzie and Gennaro in the crosshairs of a seemingly unending army of killers, but they survive to make a comeback in my next review, Darkness Take My Hand.

What makes A Drink Before the War more than just a crackling good (if sometimes a bit melodramatic) story is that most of his protagonists are real flesh-and-blood characters, human beings each and every one of whom has been warped—a little or a lot—by the circumstances of their upbringing, their jobs, and the world around them. So there’s the decent cop who drinks to drown out the hopelessness of his job, the bad gangster whose soul was ripped out of him as a child, the black journalist guilt-ridden over his own success, and Kenzie, who shocks himself with the racism that bubbles deep down inside. In fact, throughout this novel, Lehane tackles some very prickly questions about racial identity in America, forcing his readers to do some soul-searching along with his characters.

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